The phenomenon of underaged soldiers is not new, but unlike the child soldiers around the world today, those Canadians of the Second World War were volunteers; and yet, they did not know what they were in for
There is a familiar, sad pattern to the stories of underage Canadian boys who signed up to fight in the Second World War.
Too Young to Die, by John Boileau and Dan Black, provides an exhaustive account of the lads, some as young as 14, who bluffed their way into the Canadian armed forces during the Second World War. They lied about their age or borrowed an older brother’s identity, puffed-up their often scrawny chests and signed on the dotted line.
The 490-page book provides multiple windows into the way youngsters, many of them excited about the prospect of overseas adventure and flush with the indestructible nature of youth, made it on to the battlefields of Europe and Asia, as well as the danger-plagued North Atlantic Ocean and equally fraught aerial missions of Bomber Command, long before celebrating their 18th birthdays.
Using firsthand accounts, interviews with veterans and their family members, personal correspondence, diary entries and official documentation, the book weaves together a narrative about recruiters often willing to look the other way to fill quotas. It lists heights and weights for new recruits that make it seem almost impossible that someone believed they were adults when they were still, obviously, young boys.
“Throughout the war, volunteers had to be between the ages of eighteen and thirty-two, but … birth certificates were rarely produced or asked for.”
One strapping 14-year-old, who wasn’t asked for a birth certificate, lied when asked to state his age. “Nobody questioned it. They were taking everybody and I looked a little older than my years. I didn’t have to prove anything because they did not ask. They weren’t interested. They just wanted bodies.”
Another underage reservist remembers being handed a registration card to make it overseas. “You had to be eighteen years old to get one of those, but they handed them out carte blanche.”
Several underage soldiers profiled in the book detail how they were turned away multiple times before successfully joining up. One didn’t get in until the seventh try. “People were getting into the military all around us — all except us fifteen-year-olds,” said another. “We thought, well everybody is getting in, why not us?”
The book paints portraits of families wracked by the poverty of the Great Depression willing to give up their sons to the military and the merchant marine. Many fathers, themselves veterans of the First World War, were willing participants in the recruitment of their underage boys.
Other parents successfully prevented their youngsters from joining up, only to be foiled by the unstoppable nature of boys bent on donning uniforms and joining the fight.
There are many examples throughout the book of young teens being refused by one branch and simply turning to the next, and the next, until they successfully managed to find recruiting sergeants willing to turn a blind eye to fulfill the nation’s need for willing muscle and bone.
The work provides in-depth accounts of how underage Canadians made their way to war, fought and, in many cases, died for their country, despite not being old enough to vote.
For Roméo Dallaire, the former senator and retired lieutenant-general who is working to end the use of child soldiers around the world, the difference between the boys who signed up willingly three quarters of a century ago and those being coerced into fighting today is abundantly clear. “They are recruited under duress by the country that is, in these cases, often an imploding nation or failing state,” Dallaire says of today’s child soldiers.
“They are, in the majority, recruited against their will at often horrific cost of life and limb to them and to their families. There are others who find themselves without any other option because families have been destroyed and there’s no other body out there that might give them any ability to survive.”
Today’s child soldiers – found in seven state-armed forces and 51 non-state armed groups around the world – are not volunteering in a stable nation, as they did in Canada during the Second World War, he says.
That said, underage Canuck volunteers “really didn’t have a clue what they were getting into,” Dallaire says. “There was adventure, getting away from the farm – which was the majority – getting away from the little village, getting away from the tedium of an isolated rural environment. And this projected an excitement and an opportunity, in a number of cases, to be free of the yolk of the continuum of life in that environment.”
Many of Canada’s underage soldiers weren’t made aware that they could be shot, “that they could actually suffer horrifically and become victims,” he says. “That dimension was not even in the training construct at the time. You were always working at destroying the enemy and you never looked at the fact that you yourself could become a victim.”
Fast forward to today and it’s impossible to make the argument that children as young as eight are voluntarily engaging in a conflict right on their doorstep. “They’re doing it … based on survival or having survived already an abduction-type situation.”
The Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative tries to educate children before they’re recruited. The idea is to make it clear that what they might be promised, what they may see as an adventure, is false. “They are, in fact, entering a high-risk, low payoff scenario and, as such, to avoid getting sucked in.”
The global partnership, based at Dalhousie University in Halifax, trains militaries and police around the world in how to face child soldiers in a way that de-escalates the possible use of force, Dallaire says.
“We have people deployed as child protection officers training and assisting African Union missions, as an example, right now in Somalia.”
Dallaire’s people also work with non-governmental organizations in countries including Colombia and Sierra Leone to help child soldiers escape the fray.
He does see a parallel between child soldiers of today and the Canadians who volunteered to fight in the Second World War: neither had the mental capacity to make the decision to pick up a gun.
“That ability to discern risk and what is reasonable just isn’t there. They’re still kids.”